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CBS13 Investigates Bereavement Leave: The Fight For The Right To Grieve

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — While Californians are entitled to paid family leave to care for a sick family member, they lose any right to take even unpaid time off work to grieve once that family member dies.

California lawmakers have passed legislation mandating job-protected bereavement leave at least three times, but the bills have been repeatedly vetoed by two different governors. Advocates say bereavement leave is critical amid the pandemic, yet recent legislation failed again this year.

Like any new dad, Allan Brown beams when he talks about his baby girl, Nala.

"She's beautiful. It's just breathtaking how beautiful she is," Brown said.

He and his wife Brianna were planning, just like anyone else would plan, for their first child. That included plans for Allan to take Paid Family Leave to help care for their new baby. However, five weeks before Nala was born, Allan and Brianna got devastating news. They learned Nala wouldn't survive long after birth.

"It's been, it's been really bad," Brown said, fighting back tears.

Dealing a devastating second blow to the young couple, the moment they got the news that they would lose their daughter, Brown also lost the right to take any time off work, even unpaid.

"Unfortunately, this story isn't that uncommon," said Legal Aid's Jenna Gerry, who helps draft Paid Family Leave legislation.

"It just highlights this huge gap in our current law," Gerry said. "Unfortunately, unless your employer allows you that time, they can absolutely fire you. And that's legal."

She explains this is an issue that impacts nearly every working Californian. While you are entitled to Paid Family Leave to bond with a baby or care for sick a family member, the day they die, you lose any right to even unpaid leave to grieve or handle family affairs.

"Many of us will choose never to be a parent. But all of us will have people we love and care about who will get sick and who will die," Gerry said.

She says that's a greater concern now more than ever, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"You know, death rates are going up due to COVID-19, particularly in our low wages essential workers," Gerry said. "More people are dealing with the loss of a seriously ill family member and they need that time off."

Neither federal nor state law mandate any job-protected bereavement leave in California. In Illinois, employees are entitled to two weeks of leave after the death of a child, and in Oregon, workers get two weeks for any family member.

California lawmakers have passed similar legislation three times. Twice it was vetoed by Gov. Schwarzenegger and most recently it was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who cited lawsuit concerns.

In his veto message, Brown stated, "Granting bereavement leave when a close family member dies is the moral and decent thing to do and I believe that the vast majority of employers voluntarily make such an accommodation for the loss of a loved one. I am also concerned that this measure adds a more far-reaching private right to sue than is contained in related statutes."

While there is no specific California data, it's widely believed most California companies do offer some form of bereavement leave. However, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, voluntary bereavement leave offered by companies is most commonly three days off to attend a funeral.

In fact, three days of bereavement is what California state employees are entitled to and what Allan's employer voluntarily offered him.

"'Get over it,' is basically how it felt," he said.

For Brown, three days off meant he'd have to return to work and leave his wife just two days after leaving the hospital without their daughter.

"I was on the ground shaking," Brown recounted when he heard the news. He says he was told if he took more than three days off, his company would have to let him go.

Another bereavement bill died this year. It would have offered Californians 10 days of job-protected leave. Assemblyman Low, who introduced the bill, said he planned to reintroduce it next year.

Though, the groups in opposition to the bill, including employers from nearly every industry, far outnumbered those in support. Opponents, led by the California Chamber of Commerce, argue "a mandatory bereavement leave removes the flexibility employers need to balance bereavement leave requests."

For Allan, it's been a little over a month since Nala passed. Her unused diapers are still stacked in her closet and the shower gifts are tucked away out of sight. Allan hopes sharing his continued grief will help shed some light on the need for job-protected leave to grieve.

"Just having that stress relief off. For those 10 days to just breathe, would help a lot of families," Brown said.

His family has set up a GoFundMe page to help the young couple.

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